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By Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor
Of the 41 freight and commuter railroads that are federally required to implement positive train control (PTC), all but two are on pace to meet the end-of-2020 deadline.
The New Mexico Rail Runner Express and New Jersey Transit still are considered at risk of missing the deadline. Of NJ Transit's 12 rail lines, eight were in extended revenue testing and four were undergoing equipment field testing in October.
However, efforts by the two commuter railroads "continue to mature hour by hour to get to the finish line," said Federal Railroad Administrator Ronald Batory Oct. 5 while addressing the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association's virtual conference. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has streamlined communication with railroads and rail industry associations to help ensure implementation is achieved by all, he said.
"I think at 23:59 on Dec. 31 we will be at 100 percent implementation, or perhaps lacking only a few miles of track," said Batory.
All seven Class Is expect to meet the deadline despite just a few lingering issues, including interoperability. Of the 220 tenant-host relationships impacted by PTC, a good majority were interoperable as of mid-October.
For example, Union Pacific Railroad completed interoperability efforts with 26 tenants and various operating partners in 2020's first half. By installing all locomotive and wayside devices in 2018, covering all required territory with the technology in 2019 and addressing interoperability in 2020, the railroad has achieved the PTC "trifecta" per the FRA's definition of full implementation, says Greg Richardson, UP's general director of operating systems.
Yet while Batory alluded to the railroads reaching a finish line come Dec. 31, work with PTC won't draw to a close then, Richardson says.
"The perception is that after the deadline, it's all done, but it isn't. This is a new way of operating and a new way of life," he says. "We are concerned about maintaining the cadence of advancement."
Debbie Bittner, the head of transportation systems and PTC at CSX, concurs. PTC will continually develop, she believes.
"Every railroad has a signaling system, and those systems have constantly evolved. They take care and feeding, and PTC is similar," Bittner says. "PTC will never be static. We will always be upgrading and adding functionality."
Every railroad had different priorities to work through with interoperability, which now works seamlessly and just as it was envisioned, says Richardson.
"We need to maintain that. We don't want to break the interoperability mold," he says.
To aid interoperability efforts, an Association of American Railroads (AAR) PTC committee is heading an effort to revise and maintain electronic data interchanges, which Class Is long have used to exchange waybill and other information with partner railroads.
Other PTC assistance is in the works, as well. The rail industry is working on developing PTC engineering capabilities at the Transportation Technology Center Inc. in Pueblo, Colorado. The center would provide full engineering, specification development management and other services for all railroads needing help, including regionals and short lines.
"This has been in progress for quite a while. It will take time to build the expertise," says Richardson.
In the meantime, UP plans to keep phasing in its compliance with a host of PTC regulations that will take effect Jan. 1, 2021. For example, all trains must have locomotives equipped with PTC to be in full compliance. The FRA has provided some flexibility with that requirement prior to the deadline, says Richardson.
In addition, the Class Is and other railroads must issue reports on PTC failures and anomalies to the FRA monthly instead of quarterly beginning in 2021.
Next year, UP also plans to focus on improving PTC performance, adding new safety functions and driving down unintended stops to a negligible level, says Richardson.
Among those initiatives, track bulletins will be delivered by electronic means to increase accuracy and boost safety by avoiding read-back errors. In addition, UP aims to integrate PTC with energy management systems — such as automatic throttle control — to enhance performance.
For CSX, efforts in 2021 will be concentrated on continuing to develop electronic tools that improve safety and reliability.
"We can take advantage of what PTC has opened up for the rail industry. We have a lot more data now," says Bittner. "We will work on enhancements and driving efficiencies."
For example, since PTC provides precise train locations, CSX can improve the customer experience by providing shippers greater shipment visibility, says Bittner. ShipCSX tools will gain more accurate data, such as estimated times of arrival.
In terms of interoperability, CSX is fully interoperable with Amtrak, the Maryland Area Regional Commuter and Virginia Railway Express.
Each day, the Class I measures PTC actives with the passenger railroads. For the past nine to 12 months, actives on most days have reached 99 percent to 100 percent, says Bittner. CSX also is interoperable with 80 percent of its 12 freight railroad partners, including other Class Is and short lines.
"We are working on ensuring touchpoints, transfers and transition points are acting as they should," says Bittner. "We will continue testing with other railroads on our network, and expect to have it in hand before Dec. 31."
BNSF Railway Co. continues to put the finishing touches on interoperability, too. The Class I is working with 30 other railroads to identify any remaining needs and provide help, such as technical, operational and regulatory advice, or services ranging from back office hosting to crew training, said Chris Matthews, BNSF's assistant VP of network control systems, engineering and signals, in an email.
"We have achieved full interoperability with all Class Is, Amtrak and commuter lines. This is an important achievement since one of the primary purposes of PTC is to provide protection where rails run freight and passenger service," he said. "We have also achieved interoperability with the majority of our short-line partners and are on track for full completion by the end of the year."
Although BNSF completed PTC installation in early 2018, the railroad obtained a two-year deadline extension to 2020's end.
That move provided time to comply with the FRA's current interpretation of the law that full implementation status cannot be achieved until all other parties' trains and/or equipment operating on BNSF's PTC-equipped lines are also PTC-compliant, says Matthews.
Since completing implementation, BNSF has continued to install PTC in subdivisions beyond what the federal mandate calls for.
"We are running more than a thousand trains daily with PTC as we test operating in revenue service across our entire mandated territory," said Matthews.
As the deadline approaches, Norfolk Southern Railway also continues working with its railroad partners and suppliers to better refine and improve interoperability. Priorities include continued industry standardization of PTC specifications and the use of the technology for additional operational efficiencies, NS officials said in an email.
"Every opportunity we can take to reduce human error will be a priority for us," they said.
Moving into 2021, NS plans to focus on optimizing its PTC system and thousands of components, including systems management health self-reporting from collected data to further drive safety and efficiency gains in field operations.
"To that end, we also have several efforts planned with PTC Big Data and analytics to support the operation," NS officials said.
Some challenges that lie ahead include the technology's capacity and need for refreshing as components grow older and other innovations come to fruition; expected additions or modifications to functionality; and how regulatory changes or updates align with desired safety and efficiency innovations, they said.
CN's priorities for 2021 are similar: continuing to focus on PTC system reliability and enhancements, and working with AAR partners and PTC vendors.
"Our long-term priorities are to continue on our path to increased automation to support a safer and more efficient operation," CN officials said in an email.
In November 2019, the Class I met the federal requirement to operate PTC in all 35 of its U.S. subdivisions — 13 months ahead of the mandated deadline. At 2019's end, CN achieved interoperability with Amtrak, CSX, NS, BNSF, Canadian Pacific and Wisconsin & Southern Railroad.
"We have spent 2020 finalizing our interoperability implementation and rolling out a series of updates to our system," CN officials said. "We continue to test our implementation, identifying any potential defects and ensuring we deploy a safe, reliable system."
Meanwhile, Kansas City Southern Railway Co. (KCSR) in June completed interoperability with tenants and other railroads involving shared locomotives. The Class I since has focused efforts on working closely with tenants to ensure all crews run PTC successfully on its track.
"Additionally, we have placed emphasis on continuous improvement of internal system stability to minimize both intermittent and system-wide outages," KCSR officials said in an email. "The key priority for next year will be to successfully depart and run PTC 100 percent of the time, while beginning to leverage PTC technology for advanced train control efforts."
The Class I continues to closely monitor PTC usage in an effort to get to 100 percent prior to the deadline.
"We continue to mitigate this challenge by maintaining our PTC-equipped locomotives tightly, continuously training crews and improving overall system stability on field assets and the back office," KCSR officials said. "Given the strong dependency on external vendors for interoperable software, all railroads will need to work closely to test and roll out new builds for years to come."
The flurry of implementation activity has helped identify a need for something else in the rail industry: a standardized PTC system. The mandate — which ultimately involved two major PTC systems, four different platforms and seven vendors — was a missed opportunity to make that happen, the FRA's Batory believes.
"We are still pursuing a path of standardization," he said Oct. 5. "It will lead to a robust system and breed less risk."
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